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“DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND BELONGING”: A look into the shortcomings of Eastern University’s diversity initiative.

The Diversity and Inclusion Planning Initiative was created in 2016 to respond to an analysis which determined the racial makeup of the EU workforce had been steadily declining from 2010 to 2015. The analysis specifically cited university leadership as lacking in racial, ethnic, and gender diversity.
The initiative, charged by former President Robert Duffett and led by former Executive Vice President, Tom Ridington, was recommended to address the widening gap between the diversity of Eastern’s student body and those who teach and serve our students.

The initiative was followed in 2017 by a report predicting why Eastern has a low number of faculty, staff, and leadership of color, followed by a proposal for how to achieve changes in the area of diversity and inclusion.

An excerpt from the report concludes the low number of people of color at Eastern “is likely symptomatic of deeper causes emanating from policies and practices that fail to reflect the standards of community life found in Eastern University’s institutional commitments,” adding that “Hiring based on personal networks, rather than posted openings, frustrates those outside of existing power relationships from opportunities to advance their career.” The proposal recommended an institutional audit conducted by an external organization and creation of the position of Chief Diversity Officer to respond to this inequity.

In September 2017, after commitments and training to diversify, the University filled six dean’s level and above positions, with all white and mostly male persons. In response, the Concerned Black Staff and Faculty wrote a letter of concern to President Robert Duffett urging him to examine and change the University culture, and tenure and hiring practices. Multiple meetings and letters later, the same practices continue in 2020.

This summer the Anti-Racism Initiative was created by a group of students including a letter and list of expectations for Eastern to make strides toward anti-racism, alongside a petition which gathered the support of over 700 students, parents, alumni, faculty, and staff. In response to this, and to the previous proposals and recommendations, sitting President Ronald Matthews appointed Dr. Randolph Walters as a part-time Special Assistant to the President for Diversity, Equity, and Belonging.

The special assistant was appointed by the President, as opposed to the open process that was recommended in the proposal by the broader study of effective collegiate diversity. The proposal additionally recommended the position of Chief Diversity Officer, a position virtually identical to Dr. Randolph Walter’s new job description. Instead, Special Assistant to the President suggests a consultative role, while upholding the same job description as the full time position of Chief Diversity Officer.

In an attempt to better understand this issue, I consulted Dr. Kathy-Ann Hernandez, a professor at Eastern whose ongoing scholarship and research for a book she co-edited, Diversity Matters, focused specifically on the Black Diaspora in Christian higher education. Hernandez says “My continued work in the area of diversity and inclusion convinces me that ultimately D & I work is about disrupting
‘cultural lock-in’. This term refers to ‘the gradual stiffening of the invisible architecture of the corporation’ that results in ‘the ossification of its decision-making abilities, control systems, and mental models’ (Foster & Kaplan, 2001, p.16).”

Hernandez adds, “Even with the best strategies and policies for going forward, if we do not first do the work that is necessary to first identify the culture that is at work here and then seek to change it, we are treating the symptom rather than the cause.”

This observation directly addresses the procedural failures of Eastern University in appointing the role of Special Assistant to the President for Diversity, Equity, and Belonging. Dr. Hernandez concluded, “I view the processes by which this appointment was made as a serious misstep on the path to creating a truly inclusive and equitable EU campus community. This was an opportunity to disrupt the status quo of how things are ‘done at EU’ and to make room at the table for more voices to be part of the process. Now more than ever given the zeitgeist, institutions that continue to make such decisions from positions of privilege and power, do so at their own detriment.”

Eastern University’s honorable goal of increasing diversity, inclusivity, and belonging for staff, faculty, and students of color by creating this position was well intentioned and certainly needed. However, their aim will ultimately be hindered by upholding the normative procedures and practices which inhibit diversity and inclusion. For Eastern to take effective and sustainable steps toward diversity, equity, and belonging they must reconsider the procedures which ultimately inhibit these ambitions and heed the recommendations given by the Eastern community.

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